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Pakistan: School For Afghan Refugees Teaches Lessons Of War

  • Charles Recknagel

Since the Taliban came to power in 1996, most of Afghanistan's intellectuals, professionals, and artists have fled the country to escape the militia's austere brand of fundamentalist Islam. In Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, some Afghans have sought to keep their country's once-rich intellectual life viable by creating their own educational system in exile. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visits the Afghan Ibn-e Sina University in Islamabad to learn more about how the system works.

Islamabad, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At first glance, the Afghan University may strike some visitors as being slightly at odds with its name.

The university -- whose full name is the Afghan Ibn-e-Sina University -- is a two-story building on a modest street in one of Islamabad's commercial districts. There is little to distinguish it from the storefronts on either side. It appears to have no campus other than the sidewalk, and no student haunts other than the tiny tea stall just beside the entrance.

But if the establishment looks small, the noise coming from it is prodigious. The sound is the unmistakable buzz and drone of a swarm of hundreds of students packed into classrooms.

The name "university" turns out to be just one part of the institution's identity. The same building serves as a lower school during the morning for students ages 7 to 16, before transforming into a secondary and university-level school in the afternoon.

By the end of the day, 220 students will have passed through its rooms, studying subjects ranging from simple reading and arithmetic to advanced mathematics, history, and the sciences.

The school is an example of how Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- most of whom have very limited means -- have tried to keep alive their sense of identity in hopes they one day will return home.

Here, the students -- half of whom are female -- get an education in their own country's two major languages, Dari and Pashtu, plus English. They use the curriculum of Afghanistan's former state-approved educational system and mostly the same textbooks.

Today, the educational system in Afghanistan itself has almost totally disappeared, due to the physical destruction of the past two decades of war and, more recently, the policies of the ruling Taliban militia.

Masood Nawabi is the chief administrator of the Afghan University. He says it is just one of 35 such schools for Afghans in the twin-city area of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

"We have here in Islamabad and Rawalpindi 35 schools, and we have 10,000 students in these 35 schools and 600 teachers. And they are all teaching the curriculum of the Afghan education system."

Most of the teachers in the schools are educators who once taught in Afghanistan before they fled the wars that have beset the country since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Other teachers are professionals or artists who want to maintain Afghanistan's once-rich intellectual and cultural life by passing it on, in exile, to their children.

The schools are not recognized by Pakistan's educational system, but many private Pakistani institutes of education will accept their graduates after admissions tests.

Nawabi says his personal story is typical of most of the school's teachers. He was a university professor in Kabul before he left Afghanistan six years ago when the Taliban took power. He says he left because the Taliban forbade women to study and militiamen regularly harassed intellectuals. That harassment often took the form of militiamen coming into classrooms to publicly shame and taunt professors for not sharing the Taliban's own fundamentalist brand of religious beliefs.

The administrator estimates that for every 100 intellectuals who once lived in Kabul, perhaps six remain today. He says he will return to Afghanistan only after the militia loses power.

In one measure of the teachers' desire to keep alive the Afghanistan they lost, the administration and staff of this and the other schools work virtually for free. Nawabi says his teachers earn some 600 Pakistani rupees a month, or less than $10. The students pay tuition of 100 rupees a month, or about $1.50. The school considers that to be the maximum most of the families can afford to pay.

The very reduced means of the students' families often stand in sharp contrast to the social and economic positions they held before becoming refugees. Many, like the teachers themselves, are part of Afghanistan's former professional class, now almost entirely outside the country.

Mustafa Kohistani is an 18-year-old student whose father was a civil servant. The family first fled to Kabul from their home in northern Afghanistan to escape factional fighting. Later, it had to flee from Kabul after the Taliban took the city in 1996.

"Until the Taliban came, my father was working [in Kabul]. And because we are from Kohistan, from the north of Afghanistan, and he was working in Kabul, when the Taliban came they were taking [away] people who were from the north of Afghanistan, so he also couldn't stay there, and he came to Peshawar [in Pakistan]."

Kohistani, who wants to specialize in computers, says he is unable to afford a Pakistani private school, which would cost some 12 times his current tuition. Pakistan has no state-funded system of lower schools providing free education.

Another student, 19-year-old Zohra Dastyar, says her parents are also former Afghan government employees who fled Kabul. She says she studies at the Afghan University for two reasons: because of the low tuition and because she wants to be ready to one day go back to her home country.

"Dari is my mother tongue, so I want to learn it first and then the second languages. Urdu and English are my second languages. But Dari is my first, so I have to learn it. I hope to go back to my country."

When students such as Dastyar will be able to return to Afghanistan remains, for now, as uncertain as ever. The U.S.-led military strikes targeting the Taliban and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden are now in their fourth week. The international community is urging the creation of a broad-based and democratic government in Afghanistan should the Taliban regime fall from power.